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Economic Quarterly

Winter 2009

Consumption Smoothing and the Measured Regressivity of Consumption Taxes

Kartik B. Athreya and Devin Reilly

In this article, we address two questions. First, how will a move to pure consumption taxation matter for aggregate outcomes? Second, how regressive are consumption taxes? We find as follows. First, a move to a consumption tax will increase savings taken into retirement but will not alter either labor supply or consumption variability substantially. Second, we show that regressivity is a measure that is quantitatively sensitive to the frequency of income being used. In particular, we show that when measures of tax incidence are based on annual income, successful consumption smoothing leads to the appearance of high regressivity. Our preferred measure, which is based on lifetime earnings, shows that consumption taxes are proportional taxes.

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